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Video Published: 22 Jun 2022

An Oral History with Anthony Davis

On July 13th, 2021, composer Anthony Davis sat down with OPERA America's President/CEO Marc A. Scorca for a conversation about opera and their life.

This interview was originally recorded on July 13th, 2021. 
The Oral History Project is supported by the Arthur F. and Alice E. Adams Charitable Foundation. 

Anthony Davis, composer

Anthony Davis is the composer of seven operas, including X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X (1986), Under the Double Moon (1989), Amistad (1997), and Wakonda’s Dream (2007). His most recent opera, The Central Park Five, which premiered at Long Beach Opera in 2019, received the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Music. Davis is a distinguished professor of music at the University of California, San Diego.

Oral History Project

Discover the full collection of oral histories at the link below.


Marc A. Scorca: So Tony, just as a moment of background: we were beginning to do this oral history in association with our 50th anniversary, and then our 50th anniversary got completely scuttled by COVID. So we are picking it back up, and our goal is to speak to 50 people who have had a really, really important role in American opera over the last 50 years. So, that's our goal. And I did maybe half a dozen interviews back in 2019. You are the first one I'm picking up in 2021 on the other side of COVID, so thanks so much for taking this time.

Anthony Davis: Oh, thank you; great.

Marc A. Scorca: I have lots of questions for you. The first is my traditional opening question: who brought you to your first opera?

Anthony Davis: I think my first opera I saw was at Yale, and it was a concert performance of Wozzeck.

Marc A. Scorca: Wow: that is an intense first opera. Did you think to yourself, 'I want to do this' or did you think 'I'm never going back?'

Anthony Davis: No, I was intrigued; I loved the opera and I was intrigued by it. I thought earlier about composing an opera when I was in high school, but I hadn't actually seen an opera when I was thinking that I would eventually compose an opera. I sort of came out of my philosophy studies and stuff, but actually seeing, hearing Wozzeck was really intriguing. And then later, I went to performances in Central Park; I think Rigoletto in Central Park was my next one.

Marc A. Scorca: So Tony, you mentioned - gosh you were in high school - when you thought about writing an opera. So when did music come to be your platform for expression?

Anthony Davis: Well, that evolves. So it was always there. I started playing piano when I think I was in first grade or something. And music was always my refuge: a place to go. I have all the tensions in school and other stuff and so playing the piano was a way of getting away from that, but I didn't think of it as a career option really until much later. I think really when I was in college, because I was very interested in politics and political science and also I did a lot of writing as well, so it kinda came to me that music was much more going to be my focus by the time I was in college.

Marc A. Scorca: I'm just going to advance the chronology slightly: 1986. Your first opera, at New York City Opera, just a major company. X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X. How did that commission come about?

Anthony Davis: Well, that was a circuitous route. In 1983, Mary McArthur was at The Kitchen (Mary Griffin now). And I'd done some performances with my group, Episteme at The Kitchen, and she was asking, (I guess she was asking different artists)...they were trying at that point (to) look to different kinds of composers who might be interested in doing opera. So she asked me, "Do you have an idea for an opera?" And I said, "Yes, I do." And it was X. And that came about when my brother was an actor and was in a play performing the role of Malcolm X in a play at Yale Drama. So when I went to the play, my brother came backstage and he said, "Well, you know, you should write a musical about Malcolm X." And I said, "No, that's an opera. You know, he's a tragic hero. That's an opera." And so that was the place to see the genesis of the project. And then we brought in Thulani (Davis) as well to write the libretto (who was my cousin). And, then when I told Mary that, she applied for a grant, and we got a grant; kind of seed money to start. And then I was doing a radio interview I guess at the end of '83 and Marjorie Samoff and Eric Salzman heard the radio interview. And then they asked me if I could do the opera by June of '84. And I signed. I actually said, "Oh, sure, I can do it. I can do a three-act opera in four months/" So, we did the first workshop in Philadelphia at ...it was the beginning of the American Music Theater Festival in Philadelphia. So we did the first workshop there in '84 and I wrote the first act for my band Episteme: so a 10 piece ensemble. And, the second act: I just did a piano score for scene one, so we were able to do that. And then we did the whole thing in '85: the kind of first version of it that we did in at Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia. And, my future wife was a singer and had sung at New York City Opera and knew Christopher Keene. So she told Christopher Keene about it and Beverly (Sills) found out about it. So Beverly came to see it, so then they became involved and we were able to do the opera in '86.

Marc A. Scorca: Wow. And so, tell us a little bit about Episteme and why you formed it; where it performed; what it did. Tell us a little about it.

Anthony Davis: Well Episteme was the name of my ensemble and I didn't want to call it a sextet or a tentet or whatever. I didn't like those things, because it was flexible in size. So I did pieces that were for seven or eight people...and then for 10. It comes from a Greek word for a level of cognition (from actually Plato's Republic). So, Episteme is like true belief. So that became sort of the ensemble that I work with. And I recorded kind of as a jazz artist in the early '80's and late '70's. And so a lot of the musicians I worked with then like J. D. Parran (friggin great clarinet player), a number of others who became part of the opera too. They were part of the improvisers within the opera. So that's been something I've done in most of my operas - is have a core group of improvisers within the opera; the UC players I've worked with and know.

Marc A. Scorca: And that has to be difficult for subsequent productions of your works because not every instrumental ensemble or pit orchestra has that improvisational ability, so it must be a challenge.

Anthony Davis: Yeah, it's a challenge. But, in the City Opera, for example, we had nine players who are not regularly part of the orchestra - actually 10 players. So they were integrated into the orchestra and that's been kind of a model for what I've done: usually smaller ensembles. When I did it on my opera and for Opera Theatre of St. Louis, I had, I think, five improvisers within the orchestra.

Marc A. Scorca: I will want to talk about how different musical styles and different genres, whether it's chamber music, orchestral music, jazz: how those have informed your work as an opera composer. But let me follow the opera chronology just a step further, because it was after Life and Times of Malcolm X that you then did Under the Double Moon for Opera Theatre of St. Louis, a couple of years later. And then back to the American Music Theater Festival for Tania, so after the big New York City Opera arrival, you worked for two smaller companies: a wonderful summer festival, and then back to American Music Theater Festival. So what is the difference in going from big to small, because the next step was, you know, Amistad back to big company at Lyric Opera of Chicago. So, tell us about that journey from big company to small company; workshop; experimental company to established opera company. What are the differences there?

Anthony Davis: A lot of differences. A lot of it is about also with the nature of the piece itself: what kind of forces are required to do the piece and how you conceive of the piece? I was always interested in doing smaller scale works that were quirkier; when they're quirky in nature. Under the Double Moon was still for a kind of chamber size orchestra, so it's kind of in the middle of that. But when I was doing Tania, I was really interested in the idea of first of all, doing a comedy...a black comedy. Also potential of operas that could be done, not necessarily in a conventional opera house; that could be done in black box theaters or different kinds of theaters, different venues. I was interested also in a different kind of language: more contemporary language; a language that reflected what was happening in playwriting and other forms of literature at the time. So working with Michael John LaChiusa on Tania and he has a really savage sense of humor. And also he's a composer as well. So it was a very, very easy collaboration. And thinking more about a libretto sounding more like things like Mac Wellman or David Mamet or other playwrights would write, which is much more where words are...Also I think a kind of post-modern outlook too...So those operas were kind of subversive in a way and Tania, and then when I did Lear on the Second Floor and Lilith as well, we can see the smaller venues and also with (a) different kind of language and comedy is really the hardest thing to do in opera.

Marc A. Scorca: Absolutely. We talk about that all the time: just how carefully one has to land the timing in comedy.

Anthony Davis: The timing is everything. I mean, if you see a great comedian that their sense of timing and rhythm; how they establish rhythm and that kind of structure is really, really important. (It) would take me an hour to figure out how long a rest was going to be. I'm thinking about where things landed; how jokes land; and also what I love about those pieces is also: I love writing parodies: parody is something I enjoy to do. And so I found that I could look at...particularly earlier forms of jazz, popular music, other things to make musical points that also would amplify what was going on stage.

Marc A. Scorca: Well, there's several threads here that I want to explore with you. One is that when you were working with Marjorie and Eric at American Music Theater Festival (and I knew Marjorie very well), there weren't many experimental indie companies around. Opera then, because when you're talking about 1983, 1984 in Philadelphia, that's almost 40 years ago, and it was a very different landscape then for new work. What was it like? Did you look around and just see a kind of desert of new work within the opera realm? It is so different from today. What was it like back then?

Anthony Davis: Well, I think that the American Music Theater Festival was a pioneer and really presenting new work. And I remember seeing The Gospel at Colonus for the first time, Bob Telson's work. So it was an exciting period too. Some of Meredith Monk pieces I saw too. So I think that trying to redefine what opera could be and in a way that's very liberating too, because in a way it was exciting because you felt you were inventing something; inventing a new thing - a new approach to what opera could be. And so that was exciting rather than... until today, they're different venues and many composers doing things. It was interesting because we were kind of pioneers of bringing American opera to the fore and to what American opera could be, as opposed to what European opera had been. And I think that that to me was a very, very exciting thing. And then, later now, I think that it's more established within the opera world that there are different approaches to music and that the idea of doing contemporary work and doing works by American composers. So it's a very different kind of time, and that's exciting as well in a different way, cause there are a lot more opportunities than there were in the '80's.

Marc A. Scorca: There were very, very few. Hanging back there for awhile, how did you get to know Marjorie and Eric?

Anthony Davis: Well, I had known Eric; when I did that radio interview, then I heard from Eric and that's when I met Marjorie.

Marc A. Scorca: So you mentioned that you were interested in creating work that might not be done in an opera house; might be done in some kind of alternative venue. And now you look at the opera world and see that even established companies have second stages and they perform opera in found space. Do you look back wistfully at what was then and what you were trying to invent, to see what we have today? Do you feel good about the journey that American opera has taken?

Anthony Davis: Well, I do. I feel American opera has developed in interesting directions and it's flourishing. And I'm always excited to see new composers come in and - particularly this period now - so many young African-American composers who are creating operas. And I'm very excited about that and I've had a chance to be a mentor for many of them. And so slipping into a mentorship role with different composers has been very exciting for me and when I see Damien Jeter has a new opera going on at Des Moines or something, I'm very excited about it cause I've worked with Damien a lot. And there's been these incredible mentorship programs through (the) John Duffy Institute: I've been involved with John Duffy originally. And then also I just did one with Washington National Opera. And so that's always been (an) exciting part of my career and of course the American Lyric Theater with Larry (Edelson) too. That's been very exciting to work (with) these young composers who are really discovering what they want to do.

Marc A. Scorca: So then we of course get to Central Park Five and how lovely to have a Pulitzer Prize for Music for that great accomplishment. Did Central Park Five represent just continuity of your creative direction? Did you try something new in Central Park Five? How does that fit into the trajectory of your work?

Anthony Davis: Well, Central Park Five can be viewed in some ways as a continuation of what I've been doing, and I think that one thing that says it all over time is my engagement with electronics too, working with Earl Howard, and that began with Wakonda's Dream (my opera I did for Opera Omaha) and continued with the Central Park Five. So this engagement with this kind of other worldly thing. And that was very exciting because, I was interested in exploring that the idea that there's really no distinction between sound effect and music. It's a continuum, so that, in a way in film scores and horror movies, you see that all the time, because the idea of what's in a natural world, or what feigns the sound of a door (that's a cliche or one of those things) so that that can be integrated into music. I was interested in that. So Wakonda's Dream for example, the opera opens with my friend, Liz Phillips, who is Earl Howard's wife, walking around the woods with binaural microphones with a helmet on, with two microphones, so, we could get the sound of the woods in the beginning, because the lead character goes on a vision quest. So we literally, when the audience is in there, they're in the woods; they feel the stream; they hear the Doppler effect of a plane overhead. They're in a different kind of space. And I was interested in that and then also incorporating electronic sounds - stochastic sounds with that, so it's in a way, a kind of magic realism of sound; that sound could be counted to pick to represent nature and other things. So in Central Park Five, it became much more the sound of being in jail: the metal bars, all these things: what are the sounds of a prison? The sounds of going into the park and the exhilaration of going into the park and what that would represent. So it's something. And of course I lived in New York in the '80's. I lived in New York in '89 when this happened and it was all over TV. I remember watching New York One every day to see what was going on. And I remember Donald Trump making his pronouncements about the central park five. So I also realized that that was the beginning of his political career: kind of mining the racial divide and looking at and exploiting these teenagers and demonizing them. It was part of his strategy for building a political career, so I wanted to represent him on stage too. And the genesis of what Trump is, and (what) Trump represents and the danger it represents. But I wanted to take it seriously, not to make him funny necessarily just like: 'okay, Trump ha ha' you know. We all agreed (on) Trump, when it comes to jerk, but look at why people were drawn to him; why the media was so obsessed with him: all these things. So that's part of the opera too.

Marc A. Scorca: So I'm going to come back to a theme here about the intersection of opera and politics, but I'll come back to that. I wanted to explore a little bit more your use of special effects or sound effects as a kind of instrument within your pallet of creative color. Is opera the platform for this inventiveness, because as a theatrical art form, it allows for theatrical effects? Or had you been experimenting with this kind of sound integration in your jazz work, in your orchestral work? Where did you start playing with this?

Anthony Davis: Well, the first time I actually worked on that, I was doing... Actually, I have to say I did a work for MIT that I was commissioned for by MIT...(that's right after X).... and so I ended up writing a chamber piece for tape and ensemble. And so I was working in Csound at the media lab at MIT. And what was interesting: I was collaborating with Thulani and I took one of Thulani's poems, and how to read the poem. And then I kind of took it apart; her reading of the poem, like using the sound effect of breaking up the words of the poem and the sounds of an 'S'; the sounds of vowel sounds to create kind of a tape piece out of that. And that was interesting. I was tempted to kind of laughingly call the peace 'Word-processing." I don't think Thulani would appreciate the humor of that: the lowest level of computing,

Marc A. Scorca: But at the time we thought word processers were just the greatest thing.

Anthony Davis: So I wrote a series of pieces based on one poem of Thulani's: kind of dissecting it and taking apart, with her reading of it. In a sense, she would read the poem; could read the poem live with an ensemble and with the tape piece that was made out of her previous readings, using phase vocoding and all kinds of ancient ways of manipulating text; sound. And then, after that I began a collaboration with Earl Howard, a wonderful composer who does electronic music. And I did several pieces. One was a clarinet concerto called You have the Right to Remain Silent, which was for Anthony McGill. (Anthony McGill just performed it with the Cincinnati Symphony) and the premise of that is: hearing the Miranda, so during the course of the piece, you hear the whole Miranda eventually, and the electronic...So the score: there's a kind of pairing of the clarinet and the electronics. Also, Earl processes the clarinet sound live, and then that's part of the performance that happens. And then I did a piece called Restless Morning that was commissioned in Charleston by the Carolina Chamber Chorale. That was right after 9/11. They called me up and originally I was going to do something about the Confederate flag controversy, but then they said, "Well, would you be willing to do something about 9/11?" And that was days after it happened. And my friend Quincy Troupe was at UCSD and he wrote a long epic poem about 9/11, and also my collaborator, Allan Havis, who's a wonderful playwright, had written a script for that. So, using their texts, I developed this whole piece, that had a strong electronic component to it, using a Curtis file: I have a Curtis File too. And then that developed into, when I did Wakonda's Dream with Earl. That was for development in that, and then Central Park Five was another stage in that.

Marc A. Scorca: So Broadway: you have Broadway credits and are working on music theater works, which interestingly in your bio, music theater works (are) distinct from opera. So, in a world where you don't see a whole lot of boundaries between genres or styles, do you see boundaries between opera and musical theater, music theater? What's different when you are writing a music theater piece as opposed to writing an opera?

Anthony Davis: Well, it's funny because...sometimes I'm working with a great opera librettist on my musical...Michael Corey. So Michael and I both come from the opera world too. So we bring that into the project: an adaptation of a book by Sarah Schulman called Shimmer, and Sarah did the book for the music theater piece. And we've been working for a long period of time. I think I've been working on that piece for maybe over 15 years; I go back to it when I have time. I love writing songs. And so thinking about them as distinct songs, great songs, not working in the same way as...in terms of... looking at...When I'm writing an opera, I like to think of it from beginning to end as a complete piece. And I think in music theater...also with this talking in between et cetera...it has these song moments...different kind of crystalline songs, and I was excited to work with that, and Michael's a great lyricist.

Marc A. Scorca: Oh sure. You know, he has feet in both the musical theater world, the theater world, and opera.

Anthony Davis: He traverses both. And I had another project I did with Arnold Weinstein, which I was working on called Tupelo about Elvis. I learned so much doing that piece because when we decided that we were doing the piece, we would reflect all the musical influences on Elvis or created Elvis: the gospel quartets; country music; what made rockabilly; R and B influences; all the jump blues stuff, so Louis Jordan and all these things. So a lot of it in this music, I didn't know a lot of country music going into it. So, I had to listen and study country music to figure out, well, how can I write a country song? And it was really fascinating for me because it expanded what I was doing. And I fell in love with Hank Williams' music and Patsy Cline, and I began to explore that and finding like weird combinations of idioms that...I remember I wrote a country tune that was...when I listened back to it, I didn't realize that it was Thelonious Monk meets country music, which is really weird. That was weird. It was really fun to do and Arnold was such a great collaborator. So I spent a lot of time in the Chelsea Hotel, and it was like an old school thing: I would go there, stay in the Chelsea. And we worked all day, you know, just writing songs. Arnold would show me what he was modeling his song on. So it might be a pie top Smith fling or something like that. And then he'd sing something in his rough voice, which had no pitch, and then I would sit down at a piano and I'd create a song. That was fun.

Marc A. Scorca: What's interesting is, when you've done orchestral work, there have been words; when you are doing opera or musicals, there's discovery of country songs, country/western. So you really do borrow from yourself. Then you really do take your entire toolbox into whatever you are freeing.

Anthony Davis: Right. I think that's the freedom you try...also to try to find new things; find something different. But to me, I love referencing music that I love and they're part of my world. And I think that in a way we all live with music around us. Where there's music that has incredible meaning to us. And, so in a way, I find referencing those things is also finding a subliminal space; a connection that comes through music that also connects to what other people feel about music.

Marc A. Scorca: It's interesting, if I look over the arc of nearly 40 years of your work in opera, you choose works, that resonate with the world we live in: from treating the life of Malcolm X, to looking at the miscarriage of justice in Central Park Five; that you do engage with our world and its issues today in the work that you do. So clearly you have found peace with art that is also political, that is also provocative. How do you see it all fitting together? - art and politics?

Anthony Davis: Well, to me, they are explored together because I think part of it...I remember fantasizing when I first started in opera, I felt as if I was kind of a guerilla: like in a sense 'a guerilla opera'. Now there's a company called Guerilla Opera but I always thought about this idea of being subversive in that world too: that because a lot of opera institutions, when I first went into it, I thought of opera institutions as being part of, kind of the elite, the establishment and all those things. But to go into that space and present things that speak about the power structure, and speak about the inequities and what's going on in the political world to me was a kind of a subversive act. And that was always exciting to me cause I was always looking for ways to be an activist with art: that art could provoke and art could be provocative; that art could also try to understand what underlies the political moment. And sometimes it's really interesting because in Malcolm's case, I found that there were so many parallels with music because Malcolm was such an important figure in the history of jazz. And he was so in that world too. I mean if you read the autobiography, there are all these references to music in the autobiography and Malcolm was working in the dance halls when he was a hustler. So around the music, and then in this 1960's, my old family friend, Billy Taylor, who was a wonderful jazz pianist, used to have a radio show at WBAI, and on WBAI, they would present new jazz. He was literally presenting John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis, et cetera, on the radio. And that was after Malcolm's sermon. Malcolm would give his sermon on the radio and then Malcolm would always stay to hear the music. So that felt (like) there was something organic about that; that music was really part of the story. And Amistad was a similar thing because, Amistad was the signal and the birth of the minstrel show: that's when minstrel shows started. It was around the time of the modernist 1840 with the new crispy Minstrel. So it was interesting for me to look at these moments in political moments: moments in American history, that also were very important cultural moments, moments where music changed and our American culture was transformed.

Marc A. Scorca: When you're treating an opera topic that is going to be political or provocative, or definitely pointed with a message; an opportunity to comment...how do you keep it from being didactic? We don't want an opera that is a lecture; that is underscored. How do you keep it from being didactic?

Anthony Davis: Well, I think you have to think about them as people, as characters. Also, for me, that's what the playful thing is about too; playing with things because... and Tania, it was very funny. I also imagined how a person could be swept, and [indecipherable] was funny, because how you identify yourself; how you surrender to that; to be a follower: so how is one seduced into that? So in a way, you always look at (the) political - even with Donald Trump - as weird seductions. It's always seduction because you're seducing the audience...you're making them...it's an act of identification. So (if) I'm doing a rally or something like that, I try to make something about it really fun: what draws you to the flame: the fire of having a commitment; a commitment that may be greater than your life; what are you willing to die for? But in that moment, that exhilaration of it...also explore that exhilaration through the music, because there's also the sense of being transported. And one of the reasons I do repetition and other things, a part of it, and the playful repetition is the idea of...I mean, Brecht in a way always talked about music being a narcotic, and that he was suspicious of music as being a narcotic. But music also can take you out of yourself and take you into identification and feeling that you're a Malcolm X or what Malcolm X might've felt or what it would feel like to be an Israeli today, and I think there's a visceral sense that you can explore in the music: that is why politics is important.

Marc A. Scorca: I love that answer that the opera may be topical, but it is topical through the people of it. And the opera is about the people going through the issue, the circumstance.

Anthony Davis: Right, exactly. And it's interesting because history to me is an active thing; it's what creates us every moment. And our engagement with history allows us to understand who we are: that forms our identity. And so for me, in exploring that, it's also - when the goddess of the waters sings her aria - it's about us. It's about us now. It's also about the sense of how we were created out of this horrific moment of the time of the middle passage: how America was created from that. And that was always fascinating to me, because the ambivalence of the fact...now there's all this questioning of critical race theory and things like that, but I think what's interesting is: because it's hard to look at the dark side of what our history is, but at the same time, it's a triumphant story because as the idea of what emerged in spite of that, or even though without slavery, we wouldn't have our music; we wouldn't have the blues. We wouldn't have what American music is and what the possibilities of that are: so it's kind of ironic. It's always the irony of these tragic events that also were acts of creation that created who we are.

Marc A. Scorca: What is it like nearly 40 years later to come back to Malcolm X? As we all know, it is going to be produced and without getting specific, we know that it will be a multi-company co-production, which is very exciting, so audiences in different cities will get to see it. What's it like to go back to what you created 40 ago? Does it feel like it was created by somebody else? Do you recognize it? Do you want to just completely go in and change it because you're someone different today?

Anthony Davis: Well, that's very interesting cause it was 35 years later, so I'm 70 now, so it's half my lifetime ago. When I was looking at X, and it was very funny: during COVID, all my commissions were canceled at one point. So I had nothing happening. When I did X, I wrote the whole score by hand; I wrote my weird manuscript like this. So I said, it might be interesting...maybe I should do least excerpts of the opera... I'll put into the computer. And that way it's easier to reduce; it's easier...I can change it...putting it into a computer program. So I started doing that. So in the midst of that Yuval (Sharon) called me, and I'd just about finished excerpts of the opera. And he said they wanted to do the whole thing; they wanted to do the opera, but they wanted to do a two hour version of it. So I went back into it and just input the whole thing. I'm going to do the whole thing. But as I was inputting, even doing excerpts, I was changing; I was making rifts and revisions. And so I ended up...I just finished. Actually yesterday, I just finished the whole thing.

Marc A. Scorca: Wow.

Anthony Davis: I'm very excited about it because I think there are things: some of the excesses that I thought were in the opera, are not there. And, I feel I wrote two versions of an overture: a long overture version; a short overture version... And I'm very excited to hear it because I think that there are things I've learned over 35 years, especially about orchestration that I brought to the new version of the piece, without really changing the aesthetic of it, because there's something amazing - when you look at something where it was the first thing you did: the energy of that and the act of discovery that goes on when you're doing your first piece - so there's something so exciting about that. And I'm looking at my younger self seeing that excitement through the music: that was really interesting to see. And it was fun for me to create a revised version. I think that will be very effective.

Marc A. Scorca: I remember when I was chatting with Marvin David Levy, about his opera Mourning Becomes Electra, which I think is one of the great American operas, he said he revised it because it was his first opera (Metropolitan Opera commission)...and he said, "I threw everything into it, including the kitchen sink." And as part of looking at it again, was to realize, okay, "what can I take out of this, because I threw everything I had into it?" And I hear you saying the same thing in a way that you have perhaps removed a layer from it as you create a more essential version of the opera.

Anthony Davis: No, I think so. It was interesting because part of it was when I wrote the opera, I was still thinking as creating a showcase for the jazz players in my band. Okay. Well, to me now it's drama first. It's always drama first. Okay. So what serves the drama? How would I best do that? And to be more concise...more to the point, and still having improvisational moments, but making them count more and make it more integral to the flow of the drama.

Marc A. Scorca: While preserving the freshness of the 35 year old view.

Anthony Davis: Exactly. That's the trick. You can't sort of violate what your perspective was then. And we sent you... I wrote some new music in it. There's a new scene with Malcolm and Betty that's in the opera that, because I was doing a two act format, there's no longer a break between act two and act three. So I needed a transitional moment, and it was the time to do a more intimate scene that we never had in X, where Betty and Malcolm are really looking at confronting the improprieties of Elijah Muhammad and how that affects where are they going to go from there? What are they going to do? And that was interesting for me to tap that moment. It was very spare and very different from the rest of the opera, in terms of it was more intimate. And then also just with very spare orchestration with just the two voices. It was interesting.

Marc A. Scorca: You say drama is always first, and you are a Distinguished Professor of Music at the University of California, San Diego. Is that a message you give to your students? Just remember the drama is first.

Anthony Davis: Well, yeah, I try to impart that. I've been working with different students. I have an opera music theater workshop that I developed. Susan Narucki, a singer, and I did it last year. And it was fascinating because we were doing it in this time of COVID, so they all made videos. And I had a singer in Manila from the Philippines: fantastic voice, beautiful singer. And she created a piece with a composer who was from Iran and it was an incredible piece. So how you negotiate that space? Then I had a project with composers of color and librettists of color could come in to use ESD. I had John Adams as a guest, and so we did a thing together, and it was kind of an amazing project. So we were able to expose the students to a lot of different perspectives on it.

Marc A. Scorca: So here you are: professor, and as you say, you have kind of slipped into mentorship. It's amazing how one's role as a mentor just happens over time. Are there common threads? What's the advice you give to an aspiring composer? Are there a few standard bits of advice you just hear yourself saying time after time after time?

Anthony Davis: Well, sometimes it's 'don't fall for lack of ambition'. I mean, sometimes they say they try to think practically and think small when sometimes the ideas are not that. And so I said, "This is the time for you to really explore what your dreams are; what your voice is going to be. So don't sell yourself short. Don't say, well, I had to just write for one violin" and...it might be about instrumentation, but it's also about the vision: seeing what the potential of what they're doing is greater than what they're doing in the moment, that there's something more they can find. And it's very funny cause I'm very hands-on sometimes cause I instantly hear what I would do. So I have to suppress saying "Well, I would do," or... I could sing them a passage - but no, I want them to find their way, and one of the things that I've learned from Rhoda Levine and all these people - I've wonderful people I've worked with - about dramaturgy and about what's happening in a character and all those things: that's really interesting, so that it's always exciting for me to work with them. And I've had great younger composers I work with and very excited to see what they'll do next.

Marc A. Scorca: Oh, how wonderful. Tony, it's great to speak with you to catch up and to frankly, record a bit of this history and a bit of this advice, so that it is part of our 50th anniversary archive of people.

Anthony Davis: OPERA America has been a big part of my life.

Marc A. Scorca: ...from day one, we've been together, but always inspired by your brilliance; by your verbal brilliance; by your creative brilliance. Can't wait to see you in person and really looking forward to opening night at Michigan Opera Theater when we get to see a revised version of Malcolm X.

Anthony Davis: Well, thank you. Thanks, Marc. And it was great to talk to you.